Sep 21 2013 9:00am

H.G. Wells Invented Everything You Love

HG Wells Art by David A. Johnson H.G. Wells is considered one of the fathers of science fiction, and if you look at a brief timeline you’ll see why he’s so extraordinary:

  • 1895: The Time Machine
  • 1896: The Island of Doctor Moreau
  • 1897: The Invisible Man
  • 1898: The War of the Worlds
  • 1901: The First Men in the Moon

So basically for four consecutive years Wells got out of bed on New Year’s Day and said, “What ho! I think I’ll invent a new subgenre of scientific fiction!” And then he took a year off, only to return with a story about a moon landing. If it wasn’t for that gap in 1900, he probably would have invented cyberpunk, too.

To put this amazing streak in some perspective, Wells was born into a very poor family that fell into real poverty during his adolescence. He suffered through a series of Dickensian apprenticeships before he was able to basically study his way up Britain’s social caste system, working at several pupil-teacher positions before winning a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London and studying biology under Thomas Henry Huxley. After finally earning a B.S. in zoology he became a full-time teacher (A.A. Milne was one of his students) and then began writing the speculative fiction that made him famous. But even that wasn’t enough for him.

Take away H.G. Wells’ role as a founder of science fiction, and what’s left? Allow me to paraphrase Tony Stark: Feminist. Socialist. Pacifist. Non-Monogamist. Utopian. Campaigner against racism, anti-Semitism, and fascism. After World War I, he mostly abandoned writing science fiction in favor of realistic social critiques, and spent the last decades of his life as a lecturer and educator, trying to convince people, even as World War II was unfolding, that humanity deserved a better future.

Oh, and he popularized wargaming! He wrote a book called Floor Games in 1911, in which he developed a theory and methodology for playing children’s games with miniatures and props. Wells followed that up in 1913 with Little Wars, which was designed for “boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.” Why would a pacifist develop a wargame? He explains his reasoning in the rulebook, which was quoted at length in a recent New York Times article about gaming:

“You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realize just what a blundering thing Great War must be. Great War is at present, I am convinced, not only the most expensive game in the universe, but it is a game out of all proportion. Not only are the masses of men and material and suffering and inconvenience too monstrously big for reason, but—the available heads we have for it, are too small. That, I think, is the most pacific realization conceivable, and Little War brings you to it as nothing else but Great War can do.”

Little Wars popularized the idea of games based in miniatures and strategy with a non-military audience. It led in turn to the development of other role-playing games, and influenced Gary Gygax’s work on Chainmail as well as his later work with Dave Arneson on Dungeons & Dragons, as Gygax writes in the forward to the 2004 edition of the game.

So, having either invented or hugely influenced five different subgenres of science fiction, H.G. Wells also created the modern roleplaying game, and it’s safe to assume that he’s responsible for a huge amount of your cultural life! As an extra birthday tribute, we invite you to listen as H.G. Wells teases his “little namesake” Orson Welles:

Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
Don't forget the part where he time-travelled to 1979 San Francisco, fought Jack the Ripper, and fell in love with Mary Steenburgen!

Seriously, I just watched Time After Time last night, simply because of the timing of when it came up on my Netflix queue, and I had no idea it was so proximate to Mr. Wells's birthday.

But that was a heck of an interview. Wells and Welles, with some ominous foreshadowing about the state of the world in 1940, and a plug for the upcoming Citizen Kane? That's an amazing piece of radio.
jon meltzer
2. jmeltzer
1899: When The Sleeper Wakes - contemporary man in future dystopia
1904: Food of the Gods - superkids
Mike Conley
3. NomadUK
ChristopherLBennett@1: Time after Time is one of my favourite films; the effects are a bit cheesy and it's all very 1970s, but i just love it. Malcom McDowell and David Warner alone would make it worth watching, but Mary Steenburgen -- well, what can I say? The scene on the sofa in her flat is priceless.
Christopher Bennett
4. ChristopherLBennett
@3: Steenburgen has a way of running off with strange time travellers, doesn't she? First H.G. Wells, then Doc Brown.

It's a much better movie than I remembered, though you can see Nicholas Meyer imposing his pessimism about the future on Wells the way he later would on Star Trek. It's hard to reconcile Herbert's loss of his utopian vision here with the real Wells's continued utopian writings well after 1893.

And I don't think I should even try to address the problems with the film's temporal mechanics and time-machine operation. Then we'd be here all week.
Mike Conley
5. NomadUK
@4: It's hard to reconcile Herbert's loss of his utopian vision here with the real Wells's continued utopian writings well after 1893.

Not at all. He married Amy Robbins in 1895; I'm sure she brightened his outlook considerably. (I mean, seriously: Mary Steenburgen!)
Christopher Bennett
6. ChristopherLBennett
@5: True; if nothing else, the events of the film proved that the future was mutable, so maybe he was just motivated to push even harder for change.

Or, no, wait a minute, maybe they didn't show that. The event that I thought was changed was actually misreported. So I'm not sure. Never mind.
Michael Grosberg
7. Michael_GR
Yup, H.G. was one Sharp dude.
Can you do a similar overview of Olaf Stapledon? I've only recently read his two famous works, First and Last Men and Star Maker and found out that any idea that Wells missed, Stapledon covered, from virtual reality to Dyson speheres (20 years before Dyson!).
8. Narmitaj
Age of War, the 6th episode of BBC Radio 4's recent Seven Ages Of Science series by Lisa Jardine, mentions HGWells's The World Set Free (1913) - a story involving what he called "atomic bombs" - in the real-world context of Churchill having read the book before his first public utterance on nuclear weapons in 1926 (listen from 2:00 in the radio programme linked to above).

The Wikipedia article on The World Set Free says "Wells's novel may even have influenced the development of nuclear weapons, as the physicist Leó Szilárd read the book in 1932, the same year the neutron was discovered. In 1933 Szilárd conceived the idea of neutron chain reaction, and filed for patents on it in 1934."
10. Narmitaj
Next year is the centenary of the start of The Great War, aka World War One. Many people will write that it was called "the war to end all war", but it was HG Wells who came up with that notion in a series of articles published in October 1914 in a book called The War That Will End War. Now that it had started, he wanted to smash German expansionist imperialism so thoroughly that it and anything like it could not rise again.
11. Narmitaj
@ 9: But I love atomic bombs...

OK, not really. But there's no denying sf about atom bombs and their aftermath was certainly a popular sub-genre, eventually... though 30 years and more after Wells's novel, mostly.
12. Peter Davies
Worth bearing in mind that Wells was also a bit of a charmer. He was a member of a number of London clubs including the Savile, where according to club legend the father of a girl he seduced sat upstairs with a loaded shotgun for several years waiting in case he came back in the front door.

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